"Game after game after game, somebody upstairs must like us," Chris Ford was saying, smiling but not happy. "We're not playing well enough to be champions. We are working, playing defense, but the overall play just isn't there. Maybe it'll come around Thursday,"

The Celtics did win tonight, by three points, on what should have been -- and was, to some extent -- there ledtdown game, the Houston Rockets' best chance for any upset in the NBA championship series. Probably, the best thing to happen to the Celtics was falling behind by 12 points early. They needed a slap in the face, and the sooner the better.

"Flat . . . lazy," Larry Bird said of that early lapse. "We were out there, but that was about it."

"Still thinking about what we did last week (in that memoriably tense Eastern Conference series with Philadelphia)," said Ford. "I'm glad we got this out of our system and still won. But, hey, these guys are good enough to be NBA champs, if we let 'em." celestial "upstairs," some neutral watchers tonight wondered if help had not come from somewhere high in the league. This is not to be taken too seriously, but Boston was the beneficiary of four of the five obviously wrong-beaded calls by the officials.

It is a suspicion that cannot be ignored any time a sport allows so many teams into the playoffs -- and one that loses two more games than it won during the regular season manages to reach the championship series.

That the Rockets became the first under-.500 team since the '59 Minneapolis Lakers to do so well in the playoffs is embarrassing enough. Their winning the title would be disastrous.

But Houston Coach Del Harris was exactly right when he said the major reason for the Rockets' loss was not myopic officiating but giving the Celtics too many second shots.

"What hurts," he said, "was giving up 25 offensive rebounds. That's where we lost the game. You just can't give up that many chances. They got too many cheap baskets that way."

One of the enduring memories was Moses Malone, the best rebounder on earth, somehow failing to hold the ball near the baseline in the final 30 seconds. The Celts were up by a point at the time and already had gotten one of their own missed shots.

Ford had gotten that first loose ball, and when Robert Parish missed a 10-foot hook Malone seemed certain to give Houston a chance to regain the lead. In the worst sort of traffic the ugliest collisions of giants, he nearly always finds a way to snatch the ball free.

With almost nobody near him, it somehow slipped away. And the opportunistic Ford grabbed it again.

"The right place at the right time," he said. "Tell you the truth, so much was going on I don't remember the next sequence."

It was Bird soaring to the rescue once again. He got still another offensive rebound, after another Parish miss. He had a choice: either waste time, because less than 24 seconds remained in the game, or go for the basket.

"In that case," he said, "I ain't gonna mess around with it. A lotta things can happen when you're trying to protect that slim a lead. I wanted us up by three."

He got them there in his special fashion. First he missed a tough lay-up. Then he made the followup, with what seemed an unconventional -- and risky -- left-handed shot.

"Actually, it was easier," he said. "I was using the rim (as protection against the shot being blocked). I know that way was open. I just had to take my time and get it down."

He did.

As Ford was quick to emphasize, the Celts' physical sins were turnovers.

"It's gotta be our worst ball-handling game in some time," he said of the 19 turnovers. "We wanted to up-tempo the game, but you can't when you're throwing the ball away as much as we did.

"They were making all kinds of crazy shots early. That's why we've got to control the ball better."

Almost incredibly, the Rockets gained that early margin with their usual launcher, Malone, offensively short-circuited. He did not score a point for what seemed like hours and was just three for 11 at halftime. He had 10 rebounds the first half, but Bird had 11.

Houston led, by six points.

Boston has survived worse, and Ford laughed again when somebody wondered if the Celts every would lead before the final minutes -- or seconds.

"We knew once we were down that we were embarrassing ourselves," he said, "that everything we accomplished was going down the drain. We realized we'd have to dig down once more and pull it out.

"Houston is a better shooting team than Philly. And they pound the boards better. But defense, not offense, wins championship. And our defense, when the game's on the line, responds. We might not put too many points on the board, but neither do they."

Bird shot just 17 times, and said: "I wasn't in the offensive flow at first. Maybe I wasn't movin' like I should have. But I was tryin' to do other things."

Bird had 21 rebounds, nine assists and at least two keep-alives, the dives and flicks of the wrist that keep the ball moving toward teammates.

Houston will come back Thursday knowing it can play better than tonight, but perhaps also sensing that the Celtics, sufficiently scared, will not play worse.